thu 25/07/2024

The Dresser, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The Dresser, BBC Two

The Dresser, BBC Two

Ian McKellen is a stormin' Norman in starry yet patchy adaptation from the stage

Ready for a close-up: Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins in `The Dresser'Josh Barratt

The prospect of Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins acting together for the first time in their storied careers in Richard Eyre's BBC adaptation of The Dresser was one of those mouth-watering propositions to sit alongside DeNiro and Pacino on screen in Heat and the stage reunion of Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench in The Breath of Life.

And if the rather lopsided result of this latest version of a Ronald Harwood play, already made into an Oscar-nominated film in 1983, saw to it that McKellen came up trumps, that may be in the nature of the piece itself: McKellen's Norman (pictured below) is in fact the theatrical dresser of the title, so far be it from this wily veteran not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Ian McKellen as Norman in The Dresser on BBC Two The same part was long associated with Tom Courtenay, who premiered the role in London and on Broadway (where I first saw the play in 1981 with Courtenay appearing alongside the late and much-missed Paul Rogers) and then reprised it for Peter Yates's film. Albert Finney at that point took on the role of the ageing, cantankerous Sir, a thespian grandee said to have been modeled on Donald Wolfit. 

But as Peter Hall's 2005 West End revival of this play proved, no part need remain the province of a single actor forever, Nicholas Lyndhurst in that staging locating a suppressed anger that was utterly distinct from the defining feyness Courtenay brought to the role. McKellen is something else yet again: a prim, physically indrawn prattler who is very possibly not in full possession of his wits for all that he worries about the mentally wayward Sir. Playing one of life's apprentices –someone, in other words, born not to seize the spotlight but to serve – McKellen scoops up this handsomely made version from director-adaptor Richard Eyre and could well run with it all the way to the Baftas. 

Eyre seems to be going through a phase of peering inside the workings of his own profession, The Dresser airing the same week that the former National Theatre artistic director has transferred his production of Mr Foote's Other Leg into the West End, Ian Kelly's play shining its own spotlight on a vanished era of the English stage. Eyre's clear-eyed affection for the piece was evident from its burnished, period-perfect hues (the elegant camerawork was thanks to Ben Smithard) and from his work with a cast comprised of multiple collaborators of old, Eyre and McKellen having delivered a famous Fascist-themed Richard III many years ago. 

The surprise as regards The Dresser is that Hopkins – a onetime Lear for the National – didn't seem more convincing in the snatches we saw of him as the mad monarch, the paper-thin narrative of the piece hanging on whether the fretful Sir will put aside his anxieties and don his beard in time for a performance that a wartime audience receives with rapture (no surprise there), the ambient sound of air raid sirens and the like be damned. "We can't play King Lear without the King," or so remarked Her Ladyship, aka Sir's wife (a firm-voiced Emily Watson, pictured below), which was characteristic of a script that spends a fair amount of time grandly announcing the obvious. Or settling for the hammy on the way to an ending that is entirely preordained.

Emily Watson in The DresserMost of the supporting assignments were one-note affairs, the creators' primary interest clearly lying in the symbiotic interplay between Sir and Norman as a kind of WWII-era Lear and his Fool: an overworked affinity in this piece that has always made one aware how fully The Dresser needs to piggyback on its Shakespearean forbear to achieve what power comes its way. One felt vaguely sorry for Vanessa Kirby doing little more than resist Sir's advances, while Sarah Lancashire (so good in Eyre's stage musical Betty Blue Eyes) embodied long-suffering patience from the sidelines as the doting stage manager, Madge. 

In the end, the appeal lay in the dynamic between two septuagenarian acting titans (McKellen has himself done Lear on stage), only for the sidekick to command centre-screen at every turn. And if it was the garrulous, faintly creepy Norman who pierced the heart as has often been The Dresser's way, I can't imagine any of the fine men who have played this role better positioned than McKellen to speak a newly coined verb like "minioning" and – if TV were in fact the theatre – bring down the house. 

The surprise is that Anthony Hopkins didn't seem more convincing in the snatches we saw of him as the mad monarch


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article


Richard Loncraine directed Mckellan in Richard 3rd not Richard Eyre. Shame you didn't concentrate more on accuracy rather than bitching. I thought the production was rather wonderful.

Loncraine directed McKellen in the fascist-themed film version of Richard III, but Eyre directed the earlier stage production. Couldn't agree more with your comment about accuracy and bitching.

Hoping for more viewers 'comments' - I will give the performances another viewing before I 'put pen to paper' ......... For the moment, I can't seem to banish the film version from my mind! I know that may not seem right; but the film version seemed so definitive - a brilliantly put together 'ensemble'. Will look out for more comments on this! ..... Thank You BBC.

Not bitching. I totally agree with everything said and have been searching all morning for something other than pure adulation.

What a laughably one-eyed review--the paper-thin narrative, the one-note support, the unconvincing Hopkins. It rather suggests the point was missed, that it's not a play about theatrical incontinence but quiet desperation and restraint. Sarah Lancashire was subtly heartbreaking, Edward Fox unusually and beautifully vulnerable. And the scene where the two old boys need to ask a favour of the bolshie young actor that's summoned to their dressing room was a masterclass that all acting students should view on a loop (THAT's why they get you to play 'status' games, kids). De Niro and Pacino it wasn't, thank God.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters